Helen T’s story

A food technician is a job that most people would associate more with the 1970s and various lurid additives and e-numbers, rather than the 1920s and the “household arts”, but that is perhaps the best way to describe the work of Helen T.

For many years Helen lectured in the Department of Household Arts at Kings College For Women – now just Kings College, in London – and experimented with the science of particular ingredients and nutrition, with a view to improving advice given to school girls and therefore influencing the nation into better health. Since cooking and food had long been regarded as “women’s work”, this was an area where the growing number of female scientists were starting to make their mark at the time – although it is unlikely that Helen regarded herself as a scientist but more of an experimenter.

She was Scottish by birth, having been born into a landed family at the tail end of the 1890s. Her father – English by birth but Scottish by family – owned a large farm in the Scottish borders where he bred Leicester sheep and exhibited horses, and her mother appears to have done her fair share of work on the farm too. However, by the time Helen was two the flock of sheep had been sold, and the farm was let to a man from Edinburgh. Her father went to fight in the Boer War, leaving Helen and her mother living on the farm. Her mother called herself the head dairymaid, indicating that she was in charge of this operation, but clearly did not own the property herself. There were also two servants living with Helen and her mother, but possibly not working for them and rather perhaps for the farmer himself.

Helen and her mother then disappear from the British records for quite some considerable time. The best guess is that after the Boer War her father settled abroad somewhere and they went to join him, as later records do not appear to indicate a parental split. This may well have been in southern Africa, as there were many farming opportunities and perceived fortunes to be made across the former British colonies, but there is no indication of exactly where.

It is known that Helen travelled though, as there is a shipping record of her coming back to the UK from Gibraltar when she was in her mid-20s, and she must have studied in Paris at some point as she gained a diploma in cookery from the Cordon Bleu school based there. Her mother took up residence in Glasgow, it appears, when back in this country, and her father’s brother was quite prominent in life in County Durham, but Helen based herself in London.

She became a lecturer in the Household and Social Science Department at Kings College for Women in 1924. At this point the school was attached to that institution, but it became an independent entity in 1928 called King’s College of Household and Social Science. This meant that in 1929 the school was part of the University of London in the Faculty of Science. They also offered short courses in Institutional and Household Management, and a science course for nurses to enable them to gain a position of Sister Tutor.

Kings College 1938

The staff of King’s College in 1938. Helen is almost certainly included, somewhere.

Girls had been taught household skills at schools for many years – they were seen as an important part of the elementary school curriculum, undertaken by older pupils, either to prepare the young woman for running her own household when she married or for a skills base to enable them to take a placement as a domestic servant. Girls learnt cookery, how to stretch a household budget, sewing and textile crafts, laundry management and skills, and how to clean various different items. The advent of technology has meant that today these skills can be accomplished quickly and easily, but back then these jobs were often manual labour – cleaning silver cutlery, washing with a copper and a mangle, cooking on a range, and so on.

The Kings College of Household and Social Science took these tasks further, pushing the boundaries to find new ways of providing good nutrition, efficiencies in laundry tasks, science of food preservation, and many other ground-breaking ideas. Helen was involved in this end of the academic research, teaching the students and helping them to develop their own ideas.

Food was undoubtedly her speciality, both as an academic exploring nutrition and a cook working in the teaching kitchen. She also broadcast on her subjects as part of her job. A 1927 festive programme on BBC radio records that she was offering advice on how to “provide a party of children with a spread that will satisfy their keen sense of what is due at Christmas-time, without making them ill.” The accompanying blurb says that at this time she was an examiner in sick room cookery at Middlesex Hospital – nutritionists played an important part in helping the sick get well – and that she was presently engaged in working at the Low Temperature Research Station at Cambridge. Cooking at lower temperatures would have meant using less fuel, which would have helped household budgets – therefore Helen’s research would have directly impacted on women’s daily lives.

Cookery students at Kings in the 1930s

She worked closely with Miss Jessie Lindsay, who was head of the Household Arts department, and later became the only woman member of the Advisory Committee on Nutrition for the Ministry of Health. Jessie was also an examiner in sick room cookery, and an expert in dietetics. Together they collaborated on two books. The first, What Every Cook Should Know, appeared in 1932. Rather than being a recipe book, it instead looks at the underlying basic principles of preparing food – handling yeast, how different parts of an animal have different cell structures so behave in disparate ways when heat is applied, commonly observed faults in recipes, and so on. In this sense, the work is far more about the science rather than the art of cookery, and thus goes way beyond the usually assumed remit of housewifery and domestic arts.

Their second book, Modern Cookery for Schools, was published in 1934, and instructed teachers on how best to instruct their students in meal preparation and planning. This was considered a definitive work in the teaching of domestic science, and was a popular tome for many years after publication.

Miss_Jessie_Lindsay,_Head_of_Household_Arts,_1924-1948_(Ref__Q_PH4_7)

Jessie Lindsay, Helen’s co-author and colleague

As for her personal life, Helen never married. She lived with a woman, Margaret, at addresses both in London and a village on the borders of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Margaret worked as an arts auctioneer. There is no indication whether that this was a romantic relationship, and if it was it would have flown mostly under the radar, but it is equally possible that this was a close friendship. There was a marriage bar on female teachers in schools until 1944, and although it depended on the institution whether this applied to female lecturers it often meant that these guidelines were socially followed, and Margaret may have been a close companion rather than a lover. Her mother spent some time in Glasgow, and some time with her sister in Kent, meaning that she was close if Helen needed her. There was also a third member of their village household, an arts master named William, who may have had some connection to either Margaret’s work, or taught at a London university himself alongside Helen.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Helen was still working at Kings College, but referred to herself as a journalist as well as a lecturer, so may well have been contributing to various publications. Kings College and its students was evacuated from London, first going to Cardiff – where Jessie Lindsay can be found on the 1939 register – and then subsequently to Leicester.

Helen did not go with the college, however. She resigned her position to take a role in the newly re-established Ministry of Food, under its first director W S Morrison and then under the more famous Lord Woolton. Using her expertise on nutrition and household economics, she organised a nationwide propaganda campaign on food advice aimed at housewives, and gained a promotion to Head of the Food Advice Division. Much of this advice probably found itself into war-time food leaflets, although these did not bear Helen’s name.

In this new role, amid the introduction of rationing in January 1940, Helen flourished, from all accounts.

It was her personal qualities which gave to her work so great a measure of inspiration,” recalled former colleague Howard Marshall. “She saw in the Food Advice movement an opportunity for service to the community. She realised that the guidance she was able to give to housewives through her Food Advice centres would result in better standards of living.

Her mother died in Kent, in the first year of the war, leaving her effects to Helen. Her father appears to have been dead for quite a while before this, but there is no British record for what happened to him.

However, this job – though it appeared to be a great fit for Helen’s skills and personality – did not last long enough. She died suddenly at her village home in 1942, aged only 44, shocking the staff of the Ministry of Food.

“She was passionately sincere and entirely selfless in her approach to the problems created by war-time conditions,” said Howard Marshall, in letters. “Her humour, her enthusiasm, her wide humanity, and her energy will be sadly missed by all those who were privileged to work with her…. She was, I believe, too modest ever to have known how important her contribution was or how much it was appreciated… I feel as if a light had gone out… The best tribute we can pay to her memory is to continue the service to the community which is represented by Food Advice with our utmost energy.”

Her funeral was quietly held in the village, and her effects were handled by Margaret and a Scottish Writer to the Signet. There was a considerable amount of money that she had accumulated during her life.

Her former colleague Jessie Lindsay resigned her post from Kings College in 1948, though her books continued to be published for many years. She lived to be 100. Margaret lived on in their house until the mid-1970s, dying in her 80s.

Ida H’s story

A campaigner and activist for women’s education, and later a playwright and author, Ida H’s roots were very much in her beloved Wiltshire.

Born in the mid-1880s, she grew up in a village in the middle of the county, just outside Devizes, as one of seven children (including a set of twins) of the village vicar and his rather-unconventional wife. The fact that she was a vicar’s daughter means that her exact time of birth is recorded alongside her baptism. She later recounted tales of her not-particularly straight-laced Victorian childhood in a memoir. One of these involved the whole tribe of her siblings regularly running about the village bare-footed and exacting the ridicule of some passing gypsies. The gypsies’ reaction incensed their nurse so much that she insisted all the children return home and put on their Sunday best stockings and shoes, to be paraded in front of the travelling folk. However, when the children returned the gypsies had retreated to their tents for the night and the nurse’s efforts were in vain.

Her mother was a writer, and appeared to have not too much care for the strict conventions of the day, leaving Ida and her siblings to roam the area as a gang – swimming in the canal, climbing the church roof, and wandering all over the local Wiltshire downlands. Ida and one of her younger sisters even went on a riding tour alone for three days, spending one night sleeping in a barn. Their household appears comfortable, with a whole complement of domestic staff to help the family, which would mean her mother had more time to write instead of child-rearing.

She was also a keen archer, taking part in mixed doubles matches for the Wiltshire Society of Archers when she was around 20.

When Ida was in her early 20s and still living at home, her father’s position moved to another village in Wiltshire, closer to Swindon. It was here that she became involved in the work of the Workers’ Educational Association, which was initially set up in London in the early 1900s but had enthusiastically been taken up in Swindon by local politician and county councillor Reuben George. The organisation worked to further education and bring new skills to the whole population, with focus on the working class, as part of a drive at this time to improve and progress society.

Ida, in the face of considerable opposition from the locals, set up the first village branch of the WEA in her home village. This endeavour was supported by Reuben George. This was a step towards her lifelong drive towards social reform, and was followed by another – a move to London to undertake social work. Indeed, on the 1911 census she was in London, lodging with a female tutor in sociology and called herself a social worker – a fairly unusual choice of a career for a woman of her background. At home her branch of the WEA flourished, and she was appointed just the second WEA women’s officer in 1912, at the age of 27.

This put her in a position of improving the lives of women when the women’s suffrage campaign was at its height. In 1913 she wrote:

“If the WEA is to gain any substantial victory in its campaign against ignorance and injustice, men and women must be fighting side by side. Their cause, their interests are inseparably bound together. Neither party can march by itself without endangering both its own safety, and that of the party it has left, and if one ceases to make progress, the other is held back too; so, of all the special efforts the WEA has to make today, perhaps none is more important than the special effort it is making on behalf of women.”

This job took her to speak about women’s education at meetings and gatherings all over the country, and it was at one position – in Oxfordshire about three years later – that she met and fell in love with the community doctor. As married women did not have jobs, she resigned her post with the WEA and did not even acknowledge her working life on her wedding certificate, when they married in the middle of the First World War.

As a doctor, her husband was in a reserved occupation and therefore excused conscription – so did not go to war. Ida gave birth to two sons in quick succession in the years that followed, and settled into life as a doctor’s wife in Oxfordshire.

It was as part of this life that Ida, who had been a compulsive writer since childhood, began to write in earnest. As her children grew, she started as a playwright in the 1920s, penning several works for children before working on dramas and comedies for adult groups. At the tail end of the 1920s she gave birth to her third child – a daughter – nearly ten years after her second son. She continued to write plays, sometimes directing them or producing them with amateur and semi-professional companies, and several were broadcast by the BBC on the home service in the early days of radio. One, a comedy called Lardy Cake, referred to a popular Wiltshire baked product, and others made reference to occurrences in her Wiltshire childhood. She also started writing books, among them an account of her Wiltshire childhood.

The family moved to Shropshire in 1930, where Ida’s plays continued to be written and performed by the village players, and her two sons went to study at university while her daughter went to boarding school. She also wrote and broadcast about Shropshire life, and during World War Two was very active in the local WI. Writing took a bit of a back seat for Ida at this time.

Her husband retired at the end of World War Two, and they moved to Dorset – but Ida was widowed about three years later. She began to travel the world, as her family had spread out and her eldest son was now working as a diplomat and was posted to far flung places.

She moved back to Wiltshire, and settled in Aldbourne, returning to writing. In the early 60s she researched and published a book on the village she grew up in, which was followed by a book detailing holidays with her five spinster aunts in the New Forest. She then wrote a book on Shropshire, and finally an intricately researched history of Aldbourne. She was at the heart of village life until she died in the late 1970s, and was buried in Aldbourne churchyard.

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The Women Who Made Me actively welcomes submissions from anyone who has a story to tell about women from their family. To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.